Dining etiquette around the world

Written by on 1st November 2016
Category: Business Travel

Most business trips follow a similar format: you book yourself a place to stay, hop on a plane, attend a meeting or two and then return home. The quicker the visit, the less likely you are to get bogged down in the planning of it. And even then, a travel manager will probably handle the bulk of the organising.

Learning a new language, or, say, enlisting the help of a shipping company only really come into the equation with trips of a month or more.

But, what if a simple cultural difference could make or break that all-important business lunch abroad? What if something as small as picking up your fork with the wrong hand sent alarm bells running through heads of prospective clients.

Here in the UK we pride ourselves on being the land of social graces. Travel overseas, however, and those ps and qs quickly take on a whole new meaning. To help you navigate your way through the complicated field of foreign customs, we’ve compiled this handy guide to dining etiquette around the world. Feast your eyes:

Dining etiquette 2


Orderliness is next to godliness in German culture, hence the popular phrase, “Ordnung muss sein” (there must be order). But orderliness doesn’t stop at the dining table:

Arrive on time

Germans don’t do fashionably late – least of all at business lunches.

Guten Appetit!

Ensure everyone is seated and has food on their plates. It’s standard practice for a host to then say “guten appetit” before anyone launches into their first bite.

Don’t ask for tap water (if eating out)

German’s don’t tend to drink it as a rule, so instead ask for mineral or sparkling water in a restaurant.


The very word “etiquette” has its origins in France, so expect a rule or two when it comes to food.

Keep your hands visible

The French consider it rude for you to put your hands in your lap while eating, and placing your elbows on the table is just as bad. A safe halfway option is to lightly balance your forearms on the edge of table with your palms held face down.

Never pour your own drink

Wait for a server to fill your glass. At a dinner party, it’s customary for a host to do the pouring.  Also remember not to take your first sip until the host says “a votre santé” (cheers), or something to that effect.

Know your place at the table

Typically, the most honoured person will sit at the head of the table. The second and third most important guests should be seated first to the left and then to the right of the head.


A keen emphasis on face-to-face contact and familiarity keeps Italians ahead of other Europeans in terms of warmth.  Dress well, arrive with an appetite and learn a bit of the local lingo to give the best possible first impression.

Pace yourself

Italians have a reputation for dragging out meals.  Business lunches can often run for three to four hours, so be sure to book out your afternoon if necessary.

Order an espresso, not a cappuccino (with your evening meal)

Cappuccinos are only acceptable in the morning or afternoon. Italians instead prefer to have a post dinner shot of espresso.

Don’t ask for extra parmigiano

Many Italian meals are prepared specifically to be eaten without parmesan, and requesting it could be taken as an insult. Don’t ask for it unless it’s offered to you.


Singapore is a hugely diverse culture, with Malay, south Asian and European influences. That same diversity is reflected in the city-state’s dining decorum

Watch your feet

When dining in the presence of Singaporeans, ensure the soles of your feet are face down and not pointing at anyone.

Choose the right cutlery

If eating at a Chinese restaurant, remember to use chopsticks. Practice beforehand if necessary. At the end of your meal, remember to place them back on the chopstick rest, else the waiter may think you’re not finished.

Don’t eat your with your left hand

In Muslim tradition, the left hand is perceived as dirty, on account of it being used to clean oneself.  Malays and Indians typically eat with a spoon, so, either follow suit or use or right hand instead.


With so much great food to choose from in Spain, it’s no surprise that the national approach to eating is to have lots of consecutive courses, followed by an afternoon siesta.

Pass all dishes to your left

The same applies for dining in Cuba. Tapas cuisine demands that people share food. Just be sure not to send it in the wrong direction.

Keep talking

The Spanish have a saying for awkward silences at the table: “Ha pasado un angel” (An angel has just flown over).  If you can, make conversation with the person diagonally opposite you.

But don’t talk business over food (unless prompted)

Eating is generally considered a social activity in Spain – even in a professional setting. Notify your Spanish counterpart in advance if you wish discuss deals over meals.


In Chinese culture, eating-out is a common way to deepen friendships, greet guests and socialise.  Many of the country’s dining customs are founded on tradition, not dexterity.

Let older people eat first

Or wait until an elder announces “let’s eat”.  Don’t race ahead if you’re one of the youngest in the group.

Pick up your bowl

Ideally with your thumb placed on the mouth of the bowl, and your first, second and third fingers supporting underneath. Bending over your bowl is seen as bad manners.

Never stick up your chopsticks upright in a bowl

The Chinese typically do this with joss sticks at funerals, so your behaviour may stir some ill feelings.


You’d be surprised how easy it is to commit an etiquette faux pas in Japan. Here are three little-known rules:

Eat everything (if you can)

The Japanese think it impolite for you to leave food on your plate.

Don’t blow your nose at the table

An obvious one, but if you need to relieve yourself, either head outside or go to the toilet.

Don’t waste the soy sauce (if eating out)

Instead, pour however much you require into the shallow, empty bowl provided.  You can also add more if necessary.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi’s Arabia’s dining customs differ greatly from the West. Strict Muslim rule means etiquette runs hand-in-hand with religion.

Hold off bringing your partner along

As a general rule of thumb, spouses are not allowed at business meals in restaurants. Nor are you allowed to ask if they can join you.

Eating in public

Refrain from doing so during the holy month of Ramadan, as it’s likely to offend.

Be prepared to eat on the floor

Especially if invited around a Saudi’s house for dinner. The correct pose is to sit cross-legged or leaning on one knee.


A long history of Soviet rule manifests itself in Russia’s strict approach to dining. Some customs even pre-date the USSR.

Leave some food on your plate

To do so is to show respect for your host’s hospitality.

Never turn down an invitation

If invited to someone’s home for dinner, never cancel. Russians consider it extremely impolite.

Don’t leave the table (unless invited)

At formal dinners, it’s tradition for the guest of honour to get up from the table first.

South Africa

Bring a gift with you to someone’s home

If eating/drinking at a South African’s home, remember to take along a box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers as a token of appreciation.

Remember to tip

Tipping in South Africa is common practice. The accepted tipping standard is 10-15%.

Maintain eye contact

For South Africans, this is a way of building trust, along with shaking hands, so remember to look your host in the eye during a business lunch.

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